Tom Santi knew he would eventually get a chance to start for the Virginia football team, but not this soon and not like this.

In the preseason, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound freshman was the Cavaliers' fourth-string tight end -- a gifted former high school all-American stuck behind three older, similarly talented teammates. He couldn't have known he would enter November as the starting fullback.

"No," Santi said, "that wasn't exactly in the plans."

Plans changed when Jason Snelling, a budding star at fullback, suffered a significant ankle sprain in Virginia's Oct. 7 game against Clemson. After briefly elevating senior backup Brandon Isaiah, the Cavaliers decided to give Santi most of the fullback duties, using him in a hybrid role similar to what some offenses call H-back.

Ten days ago at Duke, Santi made an auspicious debut at his new position, catching two passes for 62 yards and helping the running game roll up 348 yards in a 37-16 win. On Saturday at Scott Stadium, he will again have to do his part for the 12th-ranked Cavs (6-1, 3-1 ACC) to solve Maryland's stout defense.

The seemingly resurgent Terps (4-4, 2-3), fresh off a shocking upset of Florida State, will no doubt present a greater challenge than did the last-place Blue Devils, but Santi likely won't be fazed.

"At no time has it seemed like this is too much for him," Virginia Coach Al Groh said. "He's done an admirable job for a young player at being able to really get in the swing of things right away. . . . Things don't get to him."

Thus, Santi wasn't particularly perturbed to join the Cavaliers in August and find himself looking up from the bottom of the depth chart at tight end, even though he had been one of the nation's top recruits at that position. Junior Heath Miller was a preseason all-American. Senior Patrick Estes was the biggest, most crushing blocker. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Stupar was cut from the same mold as Miller.

It seemed Santi had some work to do if he wanted to make an impact. At the same time, though, he knew Groh liked to play multiple tight ends, especially when there were so many to choose from. That was part of the reason Santi chose the Cavaliers.

"I really had no idea what was going to happen," Santi said. "You can't really come into training camp with a whole lot of expectations. You've just got to go in there and flip up the blue collar and go to work."

Groh took notice, just as he had more than a year earlier when he received a highlight tape in the mail from Jeff Rutledge, Santi's coach at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. Rutledge had spent 13 seasons in the NFL as a backup quarterback, including a seven-year stint with the New York Giants that overlapped in 1989 with Groh's first season as the team's linebackers coach.

The tape showed a player with natural pass-catching abilities, enviable size and more than enough speed to be a big-play tight end. Santi soon had a scholarship offer.

"As soon as I turned that tape machine off," Groh said, "the decision had been made."

Despite the presence of Miller, Estes and Stupar, Santi was at no time pointed toward a redshirt season -- "When they can contribute something to winning, we're ready to use them," Groh said, echoing one of the bedrock principles of his program -- but his opportunities might have been severely limited if not for a pair of injuries. Estes missed time early because of migraine headaches, and Stupar sat out the first five games because of a broken foot.

Santi made the most of increased practice time, gradually earning a larger role in the games. He has played in all seven games this season, totaling eight catches for 123 yards.

His best catch -- the one that made his coaches and teammates sit up a little straighter in their chairs in the film room last week -- came on a third-and-11 play late in the fourth quarter at Duke. Santi caught a pass in stride, used his speed to reach the corner and turned up the left sideline behind a wide receiver's block for a 46-yard gain.

"He's a special talent," quarterback Marques Hagans said.

Cavaliers Notes: After having surgery in May to repair a herniated disk in his back, sophomore guard Ian-Yates Cunningham will take a redshirt year, Groh said Monday night on his radio show. Cunningham started the final four games last season as a freshman. . . . Reserve defensive end Chris Long likely will play this weekend after missing the past month because of mononucleosis.

Virginia's Tom Santi kept Duke defenders at arm's length last month, catching two passes for 62 yards and helping the Cavs rush for 348 yards.